In an attempt to trace the beginnings of Cali, Colombia’s notorious cocaine cartel, “The King” becomes excessively clinical in relating the rise and fall of the city’s first drug kingpin. The fictionalized anti-hero, Pedro Rey (Fernando Solorzano), may imagine himself as a new Scarface, but director Antonio Dorado’s drama lacks the galvanizing nastiness of either helmers Howard Hawks’ or Brian De Palma’s iconic bad guy. Although containing the requisite doses of sex and violence needed to draw in Latin markets, pic is unlikely to make wider fest or theatrical connections.
Film’s dryness may stem from project’s origins as a documentary, but just as crucial is a basic indecisiveness about whether to portray Rey as a romantic gangster of the people, or as a heartless thug who helped hook an entire regional economy on the coke trade.
Dorado and Ilona Kunesova’s scenario periodically blames U.S. influence (from the Peace Corps to the vast supply of Yank customers) for the conditions that allowed Rey to grow the cocaine cartel, but, frustratingly, they do not develop the idea into a full-blown dramatic concept.
Starting out in 1966 as a humble restaurant-bar owner, Rey takes in pretty Blanca (Cristina Umana) as lover and barmaid. He faces financial problems before meeting Peace Corps volunteer Harry (French thesp Olivier Pages).
When Rey learns about the potential for Peruvian coke as an export, he brings together associates to refine and distribute the white stuff, including El Camarada (Diego Velez), a leftist revolutionary and chemistry whiz, and Harry, who has the important U.S. connections they need.
Pic’s narrative framework includes a journalist recounting the El Rey saga, but this proves more intrusive than helpful, pulling the movie into an uncertain docu-drama mode.
“El Rey” is most interesting as the portrait of a kingpin who delegates too much authority. Betrayals, plus an affair Rey has with a sexy local politician (Vanessa Simon), launch a third act filled with revenge and executions whose shock, however, is undermined by their predictability.
A love triangle of sorts involving Solorzano, Umana and El Pollo (Marlon Moreno), Rey’s right-hand man, threatens to push “El Rey” into telenovela mode. Nonetheless, Antonio Frutos’ editing attains a machine-gun rhythm, while the production team skillfully manages to recreate a late ’60s Cali bursting with energy.